work madness

Franklyn Dzingai, Space Between Us 2


Commentary on the book by Christophe Dejours

The psychopathology of work, so well presented by Christophe Dejours, despite not being new, has been very overlooked by researchers in the historical context. It's not for less. After all, in the last decades of hegemonic predominance of the great international financial capital, talking about workers' health may seem, to say the least, eccentric. In this sense, realizing the underdevelopment of this historical phenomenon of deepening the understanding of the labor movement and its correlations of inter and intra-class forces is to sweep under the rug the particularities that guided, and still guide, the continuous illness of workers in modernity.

In this sense, for Christophe Dejous, the history of workers' health is linked to the evolution of living and working conditions that they managed to achieve through workers' struggles over time. Indeed, if in the past the fight for health meant fighting for survival, the current “civilizational crisis” goes beyond the mere question of life itself to reach the context of mental suffering. In the XNUMXst century, it is no longer enough to pay attention to the excessive and precarious duration of work, but also to the organization of the current alienated work in a society of fetishistic consumption.

The capitalist changes of the 30th century and the beginning of this century greatly impacted the world of work. After 200 (thirty) golden years of post-war capitalism, the new liberal phase has left indelible marks in reducing workers' quality of life. The new international division of labor, with the respective reduction of the industrial proletariat, reconfigured the society established over the last 2000 years, where fixed work in some predetermined location, and the life resulting from this premise, is rapidly unraveling (POLANYI , XNUMX).

In Brazil, especially during the military dictatorship between 1964-1985, a period that highlighted the two periods of post-war capitalism and its downfall to the new liberal capitalism, or neoliberalism, dependent industrialization reinforced the super-exploitation of work, with low wages, increased working hours, disorganization of the labor and union movement and productive restructuring. In this sense, the new neoliberal system, heir to Fordism, articulates a new process of primitive accumulation of capital CASTEL (1995).

For Antunes and Praun (2015, p. ), the implementation of total quality programs, systems just-in-time e kanban, in addition to the introduction of wage gains linked to profitability and productivity (of which the profit sharing program - PLR is an example), under a pragmatics that was strongly adapted to neoliberal designs, made possible the intensified expansion of productive restructuring, having as consequences the flexibilization, the informality and the deep precariousness of the working conditions and life of the Brazilian working class.

The effects of this productive restructuring can be seen in the increasing rate of accidents at work, with the consequent increase in worker deaths. In addition, the link between work deterioration and accidents without deaths/illnesses has become increasingly evident in the growing research carried out (MPT, 2017).

In addition to ideological discussions, some factors are closely intertwined with the increase in accidents at work and illnesses. Thus, the flexibility of work, shortening the boundaries between private and public life of individuals; individualization and loneliness at work; the increasingly less tangible goals; the different types of harassment as a form of exploitation of the worker; and the outsourcing of services without proper supervision by the public authorities, are the gateways to the increase in negative statistics on workers' health (idem, 2017).

As if these risk factors, mentioned above, were not enough, which are directly responsible for more than 6,3 deaths from work accidents per day, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO, 2018), more than 61% of the employed population in the world – 2 billion people – is in the informal economy.

Also according to the ILO (2018), the (lack of) education is the main factor of this high informality because, according to it (ILO), the higher the level of education, the lower the level of informality. And the ILO study adds that: “People who have completed secondary and higher education are less likely to be in the informal market compared to workers who have no schooling or have only completed primary education.

In Brazil, according to the Federal Council of Medicine - CFM - there is a very large underreporting of diseases caused by work, with less than 2% of illnesses and less than 1% of deaths reported, when the world's highest entity, ILO, establishes that diseases caused by work represent 86%, on average (CFM, 2018).

According to Christophe Dejours: “The organization of work exerts a specific action on man, whose impact is the psychic apparatus. Under certain conditions, suffering emerges that can be attributed to the clash between an individual history, the bearer of projects, hopes and desires, and a work organization that ignores them.”

Although the current decline of modernity (many already speak of post-modernity, which is not the understanding of this scribe, nor the object of study of this work) does not present many favorable horizons for the world of work, it is necessary to try to take a short walk through the recent world political-economic-social history and, specifically, Brazil, postulating a better understanding of the historical deviation that capitalism took, after spending several decades of bonanza, social well-being and economic growth, even though the periphery of the system, or that is, developing and/or underdeveloped countries, have taken the smallest slice of the cake, despite having the majority of the world's population.

In this way, it is fundamental to understand how state policy was being co-opted by capital, in all its spheres of action, including and especially the sphere of public health, promoting the dismantling of social support networks. The abandonment of the end of the centralization of family life through work, the lack of material and psychological support conditions for workers and the increase in the rigidity of social relations are important factors for the fraying of the social fabric of the past, when work, and its constant, fixed, concrete remuneration set the psychological tone of capitalist life (here we will not go into the merits of the issue of work as a factor of human alienation, both abstract and concrete work) (DELGADO, 2017).

In Brazil, faced with an adverse economic scenario since the last global financial crisis in 2008, the return of market supremacy, and its orthodox public management policies, even in the Dilma government, the accelerated increase in unemployment was a factor of public political wear, of the group that held power or part of it, and private illness of workers who are less and less secure in their jobs. The political and institutional disarrangements since then, which led to the rise of a new political current in 2018, have only increased the precarious life of the Brazilian worker, raising the rates of work accidents and work-related illness (idem, 2017).

As Antunes and Praun (2015) say: “It is not, therefore, mere chance that the higher incidence of cases of repetitive strain injuries/work-related musculoskeletal disorders (RSI/Dort) and mental disorders occurs simultaneously with the dissemination in scale 424 Serv. Soc. Soc., Sao Paulo, n. 123, p. 407-427, Jul./Sept. 2015 of work and production reorganization processes and, in an articulated manner, the expansion of different forms of precarious work, including the expansion of outsourcing” (ANTUNES E PRAUN, 2015, p. 423-424).

An important aim to help minimize the damage already done by the even more radical neoliberal system, some call it ultraliberal, in the world and in peripheral countries, notably in Brazil, is the psychopathology of Christophe Dejours' work. Indeed, for this author, the main objective of his study was to establish the relationship between work organization and psychological distress. Despite his study being mostly Eurocentric, it is possible to extend his study to the global sphere in relation to the exploration of the feeling of fear and anxiety for the maximum extraction of the worker's productivity in his “work relationship”.[I]

Therefore, from the golden age of industrial capitalism – the XNUMXth century – to the golden age of Taylorism, precisely in the so-called “thirty glorious years” period,[ii] inhabitants of slums in large cities represented the bulk of factory workers around the world and were the main victims, along with their families, of a high rate of morbidity, as they lived in a precarious situation in terms of the materiality of endemic poverty.

In this sense, the mental health of these workers exposed to degrading conditions of social interaction initiated defensive strategies to mitigate the effects of these unhealthy living conditions. For such a desire, Christophe Dejours identified the reactions of these people as an “escape valve”, namely, alcoholism, acts of antisocial violence, madness of all forms and death. For him, the suffering of workers was linked to dissatisfaction and anxiety/fear.

The research carried out by the author brought the feeling of unworthiness of these workers for performing uninteresting tasks, for not having adequate conditions to carry them out, both material and emotional, and even so being forced to perform certain tasks that were not understood by these workers in relation to the purpose of the work. work.

Thus, still according to the author, the feeling of unworthiness is related to the depressive experience of the salaried worker, which is manifested by his tiredness, not only physical fatigue, but mental exhaustion that influences his performance and productivity in carrying out tasks. that are imposed on him.

Indeed, what the author verified was that workers never let go of “nervous tension”, even where the workload is less high. Thus, the representations of ignorance in relation to the meaning of the work carried out, this fragmented purpose to provide the maximum productivity of the worker, the painful feeling of always being controlled by superiors and the conviction that the workplace itself is dangerous for the worker's life, especially workers who participate directly in the production process show, according to Dejours: "... the extent of fear that responds, at the psychological level, to all risks that are not controlled by collective prevention". (Idem, p. 88)

What results from this is what the author called “exploitation of suffering”, that is, that the exploration of this feeling of/anxiety/fear leads to the erosion of workers’ mental health is beneficial for the implementation of a conditioning in favor of suffering. production. In other words, the mental life of each individual worker is nothing more than a necessary intermediary for the submission of the body.

Consequently, the examples of telephone operators and the petrochemical industry that Christophe Dejours gave for the suffering arising from dissatisfaction and fear, respectively, are essential for understanding how the working organization of work works. These feelings produce an indeterminate, diffuse and manipulable aggressiveness for the exploitation of the worker by the work organization. In fact, when it is impossible to escape this panoptic environment, the worker passes to the phase of self-aggression, when aggressiveness is transformed into guilt and frustration feeds discipline, which is the basis of conditioned behavior.

So, for Christophe Dejours: “So the only way out of aggressiveness, which is quite restricted, is to work faster. Here is an extraordinary fact, which leads to an increase in productivity…”. (Ibid., 134)

That said, if on the one hand Dejours understands that anguish serves as a transmission belt for repression, on the other hand irritation and nervous tension are capable of promoting an increase in production. Hence, he understands that, for repetitive jobs such as that of the telephone operator: “psychic suffering, far from being an epiphenomenon, is the very instrument for the production of work”. (ibid., p. 134).

At this point, his study makes it clear that the organization of work explores not the suffering itself, but mainly the defense mechanisms used against this suffering. The telephone operators' reports about the “robotizing”, fragmented, repetitive work that the work organization provides the workers results in the expulsion of each one's own desire. Because it is precisely the frustration and aggressiveness of the suffered and tense working day that will lead to an increase in the pace of work.

Furthermore, psychic suffering in the organization of work is little recognized by the subject himself. Defense strategies act to mitigate such suffering, causing each worker to manage his/her suffering according to the objective conditions that each one has, as a kind of “escape valve”, which may lead to cases of depression over time, neurosis and psychosis.

For all these reasons, Christophe Dejours understands that the “robotized”, dangerous, fragmented organization of work that has been the keynote since the heyday of capitalism can result in the loss of hope and dreams on the part of the working class. Thus, what he calls a blockage in the relationship between man and work can occur. This pathogenic blockade, for him, is related to the predatory way in which work reaches the needs of the worker's mental structure.

*Andre Marcio Neves Soares is a doctoral candidate in social policies and citizenship at the Catholic University of Salvador (UCSAL).


Christophe Dejours. The madness of work: study of psychopathology at work. Sao Paulo, Cortez. 2017, 224 pages.


ANTUNES, Ricardo; PRAUN, Luci. The society of illness at work. Social Service Magazine. Sao Paulo, N.o. 123, pgs. 407-427, 2015.

CASTEL, Robert. The metamorphoses of the social issue – A salary chronicle. Petropolis. Publisher Voices. 1995.

DELGADO, Mauricio Godinho. Capitalism, Work and Employment. São Paulo. Publisher LTr. 2017.

POLANYI, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Origins of Our Time. Rio de Janeiro. Elsevier Publisher. 2000.


[I] Dejours understands “work relationship” as all the human ties created by the organization of work: relationships with the hierarchy, with superiors, with supervision, with other workers – and which are sometimes unpleasant or even unbearable. (2017, page 96)

[ii] Post-war phase – from 1946 to the beginning of the 1970s – which encompasses three decades of splendor of the Social Welfare State in Europe, especially, but also of global reconstruction of the world undermined by two world wars.

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